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Is Gene Sharp Superman?

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By Stephen Gowans

Samuel P. Jacobs’ Valentine’s Day article in The Daily Beast has a catchy title: “Gene Sharp, the 83 year old who toppled Egypt.” Sharp is a scholar who has spent much of his life developing ideas on how to overthrow authoritarian governments using nonviolence.

While Jacobs’ title is eye-catching, it’s also nonsense. Attributing the toppling of Mubarak to Sharp is like attributing the toppling of the Tsar to Karl Marx. Sure, their ideas may have inspired some of the people who sought the downfall of tyrants, but the connection stops there.

Did an octagenarian nonviolence scholar remotely mobilize millions of Egyptians to bring down Mubarak? If he did we've been misled about Clark Kent. He isn't Superman. Gene Sharp is.

A more realistic description of the nonviolence advocate is provided in the headline of a September 13, 2008 Wall Street Journal article: “Quiet Boston Scholar Inspires Rebels Around the World.” But even this goes too far. Sharp’s techniques of nonviolent direct action may inspire rebels to choose nonviolence, but not to rebel.

The confusion around Sharp is a confusion of means and ends. Sharp and the scholars who work to develop and disseminate his ideas are concerned with means: How to challenge and seize state power. True, the Boston scholar and many other nonviolence advocates appear to embrace liberal democracy as their ideal system, but their work isn’t about singing the praises of regular multi-party elections, the rule of law, and civil and political liberties. Instead, it’s about how to move challenges to the state off a playing field the state has an enormous advantage on: the use of violence.

True, too, the advocates of Sharp’s ideas—and Sharp himself–are often involved in imparting the scholar’s techniques to rebels who are working to bring down governments Washington opposes. And the same rebels often receive generous aid from the US government to facilitate the application of Sharp’s techniques. Still, his ideas are as accessible to Marxists and anarchists looking to overthrow capitalist governments as they are to US-backed street rebels.

Whether Sharp’s ideas played a decisive role in the Tahrir Square uprising, however, is an open question. These days it’s practically impossible for anyone who is seriously interested in challenging the state not to have at least a passing acquaintance with Sharp’s work. It’s just out there. If some people who were active in trying to organize the uprising were Sharp-literate, we shouldn’t be greatly surprised. But what role did they play in shaping the uprising’s actions?

Protestors did not hew strictly to the nonviolent line (they battled violently with police and Mubarak’s thugs when attacked) and the otherwise peaceful nature of the uprising may have had little to do with any conscious commitment to model tactics on Sharp’s advice and more with self-survival. After all, who’s going to storm parliament or the president’s office with the army deployed nearby?

What about the US government? Did it play any role in the uprising?

The short answer is yes. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s almost axiomatic that the United States tries to influence events on the ground in key countries. But that doesn’t mean that it pulled a trigger that set the Egyptian uprising in motion.

States try to influence the affairs of other countries in all sorts of ways: through trade policy; foreign aid; military aid; espionage; media; and so on. If they can gain leverage over an opposition movement, they’ll do that too – either to strengthen it, if they want to destabilize the country in question, or to guide it away from unpalatable alternatives, if the country is an ally. Of course, there is never any guarantee that their investment will pay off.

You can adopt a purist democratic position that says interference in the affairs of other countries is always undemocratic and therefore deplorable, but that’s a moral, not an empirical, position, which involves questions about what type of influence is illegitimate. (Is it illegitimate to use trade policy to influence another country? What about media? Russia Today, the Russian government’s medium for influencing foreign opinion abroad, is every bit as much part of Moscow’s apparatus for influencing affairs in other countries as its diplomatic policy is.) Rather than asking these questions we might be better served by asking which class’s interests are predominant in the efforts of the state to exert its influence overseas.

The United States exerts enormous influence over Egypt in multiple ways, not least of which is through the training, aid, and equipment it provides the Egyptian military. It’s likely that any government in Cairo which pursued measures inimical to the investment and export interests of US corporations and investors would soon be toppled in a coup d’etat engineered by its own US-influenced military. US efforts to influence events abroad typically have the economic interests of US investors, banks and corporations in mind, if not directly, then indirectly.

A favored government that has allowed its rule to become destabilized might also be toppled by its own military to prevent a radical movement from taking advantage of instability to come to power. This may be a fair description of what has happened in Egypt in the last few days. True, the passing of power from Mubarak to the military hasn’t been widely described as a military coup d’etat, but it fits the bill.

One other way in which the United States has tried to influence Egypt’s internal affairs is by providing funding to some sectors of the anti-Mubarak opposition (i.e., the secular, pro-capitalist, pro-foreign investment ones.) Indeed, the Obama administration has provided millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups in Egypt (while showering billions of dollars in military aid upon the Mubarak government, showing where its priorities lie.)

An answer to why Washington has funded the opposition to an autocrat it supported for three decades (and who in turn supported US trade and investment interests) can be found in US policy during the Cold War. It was CIA practice after World War II to covertly fund social democratic groups, parties, newspapers and journals, in order to draw people who were disgruntled with capitalism away from communism—which posed a serious threat to US corporate and banking interests–and to divert their energies into, or cement them in place within, a leftist movement pledged to work within the capitalist system. That’s not to say the US establishment had any particular fondness for social democracy. Quite the contrary is true. But social democracy was preferable to communism, and its role in weakening radical opposition was prized.

Indeed, the Kefaya, or Enough movement in Egypt, which appears to have emerged as a leading player in the anti-Mubarak opposition, embraces a program which is in no way uncongenial with the interests of US banks and corporations. It favors the kind of system Sharp, many nonviolence advocates, and, perhaps the majority of Egyptians, favor. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that if Mubarak’s stable rule was no longer tenable, that Washington would work toward having alternatives in place, one of them being Kafaya and what it appears to aspire to.

Where does that leave Gene Sharp? Well, he would truly be a man of exceptional talents were he able, in his dotage no less, to remotely mobilize a mass uprising to topple an autocrat on the other side of the globe. Equally superhuman must be the former Egyptian police officer who has pulled the strings of the uprising from his command center in a low-rent Virginia apartment using nothing but homemade YouTube videos, as another story goes. And what of Google executive Wael Ghonim? To hear The New York Times tell it, he’s the uprising’s Lenin. So who’s pulling the strings: Sharp, the ex-cop, or Ghonim?

To be sure, the practice of reducing complex social phenomena to the actions of a single individual is commonplace. Reagan brought down the Soviet Union, and Stalin singlehandedly built it and is responsible for all the bad things that ever happened in it. The extermination of six million Jews was authored by a single person, Adolph Hitler, and the Vietnam War is mostly due to Richard Nixon. Great man theories of history may have long been dismissed by scholars for sound reasons, but they continue to thrive in popular discourse in place of explanations based on anonymous social and economic forces.

Unquestionably, Sharp, the ex-cop, Ghonim, and the US government too, played a role in the Tahrir Square uprising, some remotely and indirectly, others more directly. But they alone weren’t the only ones who played a part. So too did Mubarak and his policies and the corruption of his son Gamal, as did Egypt’s military, the Muslim Brotherhood, food prices, the privatization of Egypt’s publically owned enterprises, bloggers, Israel, unemployment, Saudi Arabia, the police, millions of ordinary Egyptians, the media and a vast array of other events, people, relations and systems.

I have no fondness for Sharp. His politics skew far to the right of what I’m comfortable with, though he’s by no means what people in the United States would understand to be right-wing, or Republican. All the same, the depiction of him as a mastermind who mobilizes uprisings around the world is insupportable. He may inspire some rebels to embrace nonviolence, but he no more inspires rebellion than the manufacturers of Grecian Formula inspire the hair of it customers to turn grey.

Written by what's left

February 16, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Lester Kurtz’s Duty

with 3 comments

By Stephen Gowans

This is the continuation of an exchange between me and Lester Kurtz, a sociology professor and exponent of nonviolent resistance who sits on the academic advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Lester Kurtz, an exponent of nonviolent warfare who sits on the academic advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations-linked International Center on Nonviolent Conflict says he felt it was his duty to meet with members of his country's intelligence community to discuss nonviolent resistance. The ICNC provides information on civil disobedience tactics to groups seeking to take power from foreign governments.

Kurtz’s reply to my “Leftist overthrow advisor Lester Kurtz: ‘I talked with the CIA’” is below, followed by my reply to him.

Kurtz

Stephen Gowans’ commitment to justice and opposition to imperialism is admirable and I wish to thank him for his contribution to that ongoing struggle. I am not convinced, however, that his approach will help him achieve his goals, and would like to offer some friendly suggestions and a gentle critique regarding his approach to what I consider our common endeavor. I welcome a dialogue with him, as well as with anyone wishing to address these vital issues that he raises.

First, I am flattered by his inaccurate headline calling me a “Leftist overthrow advisor,” but that is not me – I am a sociology professor at George Mason University who educates people in the strategies of nonviolent civil resistance. What I teach and write about is not a recipe for taking “power from foreign governments” as Mr. Gowans suggests, but frameworks to understand better a complex phenomenon known as nonviolent conflict and a set of tools that have proved – across various historical cases – effective in resisting different types of oppression. It is a matter of educating and therefore empowering people to stand up to injustice no matter what the source – leftist, right-wing, domestic, or foreign governments, as well as tyranny within the workplace, the home, or the neighborhood.

Mahatma Gandhi, my professor in these matters and the subject of years of research on my part, in addition to being an extraordinary strategist was the genius of anti-imperialism in his day, who set in motion the forces that toppled the colonial system. He wanted everyone to be trained as a Satyagrahi, a nonviolent civil resister who would oppose any kind of injustice in any sphere or at any level, from the micro level (e.g., domestic violence) to the global (e.g., international imperialism).

What is disturbing about Mr. Gowans’ comments is that many of his facts are simply inaccurate. I have never collaborated with the CIA, nor has the ICNC on whose academic advisory board I sit. I spoke as an independent academic and in no way as a representative of the ICNC, when my government asked me to dialogue with members of its intelligence community. I feel that it is my duty as a citizen to educate others when requested, and I was glad to give my modest input, among others, into a greater understanding of nonviolent processes that I think are often so badly misguided and– as Mr. Gowans’ article proves – misinterpreted.

To be completely transparent so Mr. Gowans understands clearly that there are no hidden conspiracies, at the first event, at the Rand office in Washington, I served on a panel with distinguished scholars (including Juan Cole) and spoke about religion and violence (one area of my expertise). Later I was asked to respond to a presentation by UCLA professor David Rapoport about terrorism and then at the National Intelligence Council’s request I gave a presentation on nonviolent movements, which I had mentioned as playing a more significant role than violent ones when examining religious movements. At no time did I provide any information that I did not already present in my publications and courses.

More broadly, Mr. Gowans has a serious misunderstanding of what is being taught by me (and by ICNC), and to whom it is being taught. It would be helpful if he would peruse ICNC’s website or obtain and read its extensive materials on civil resistance before making assumptions about its content. He might also sample my writings and books. Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S., such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the movement against Pinochet in Chile, the people power movement against Marcos in the Philippines, and the first Intifada against Israel in occupied Palestine. Moreover, ICNC’s educational materials have been used, and workshops that it supported have been attended, by organizers and participants in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, in the Maldivians’ successful campaign for democracy, in the West Papuans’ struggle for independence from Indonesia, in the Sahrawis’ struggle for independence from Morocco, in the Egyptian and Ethiopian resistance to dictators in those countries, and in the struggle of Hondurans against the coup regime in that country. All of these nonviolent struggles have been waged against governments supported or assisted by the U.S. government.

As Mr. Gowans essentially concedes, nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change. The best study demonstrating that is Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1(Summer2008), pp. 7–44. In disseminating information about this phenomenon, the ICNC is merely one of many organizations internationally working to develop nonviolent civil resistance and encouraging its exploration. Training for Change, Nonviolent International, Voices in the Wilderness, the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and Peaceworkers in the U.S., War Resisters International based in the U.K., and Nova/Center for Social Innovation in Spain, are just a few of the other international organizations that are shouldering the work of global education in nonviolent struggle (and with all of whom ICNC has cooperated).

I wish Mr. Gowans – who I want to believe is as ardent supporter of strategic nonviolent action as I am – would join me and others in creatively developing nonviolent strategies and actions for fighting imperialism and injustice rather than attacking people who are actually providing education for oppressed peoples in hope of helping them mount effective nonviolent resistance.

Gowans’ Response

It is presumptuous of Lester Kurtz to equate his opposition to imperialism to my own. Kurtz’s commitment is not to anti-imperialism but to nonviolent resistance and the thought of Mahatma Gandhi. The two, notwithstanding the efforts of Kurtz, Stephen Zunes, and others to suggest they are the same, are very different.

Embracing nonviolent resistance does not make one an anti-imperialist, anymore than embracing violence does. With equal illogic, we could say that those who take up arms are anti-imperialists, because the use of violence has been central to many past anti-imperialist struggles. But that would imply that the Nazis were anti-imperialists, because they too relied on the use of violence to achieve their political goals. The means used to achieve a goal bear no necessary relationship to the goal to be achieved. The idea that all applications of Gandhian nonviolent resistance are anti-imperialist, because Gandhi led a struggle against British imperialism, is based on the same logical blunder. We can conceive of violence to achieve anti-imperialist ends and nonviolence to do the same. Equally, we can conceive of violence used to strengthen and defend imperialism, and nonviolence used for the same ends.

To be sure, Kurtz’s commitment to nonviolent resistance does not rule out the possibility that he is a committed anti-imperialist. But it would indeed be a strange anti-imperialist who feels that when his government (whose imperialist credentials are beyond dispute) calls upon him to dialogue with members of its intelligence community (who have a lead role in defending and promoting imperialism), that it he is duty-bound to comply. Had he been a German citizen in 1939, would he have felt it his duty to dialogue with members of the SS had he been asked? Apparently, in his felt obligation to meet with the CIA, and in his willingness to provide information on nonviolent struggle to groups with pro-imperialist aims, Kurtz sees himself as having a duty to an imperialist government which is higher than his duty to those struggling against it.

Kurtz takes another logical misstep when he argues: “Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we (the ICNC) are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S.” It does not follow that the tools the ICNC disseminates are not being used for US imperialism simply because they are based on previous struggles against US imperialism. Logically, Kurtz’s statement is equivalent to saying ICBMs are not weapons of mass destruction because the underlying rocket technology has been used for peaceful space exploration. Or that because guerrilla warfare was central to many anti-imperialist struggles, that the Contras, Mujahedeen, and Kosovo Liberation Army were anti-imperialist.

Kurtz, Zunes and their ICNC colleagues borrow the anti-imperialist prestige of previous nonviolent anti-imperialist struggles, and the progressive prestige of the nonviolent civil rights struggles in the US, to suggest the application of similar techniques is always anti-imperialist and progressive, and to whitewash the applications that aren’t. This is no different, in its political aim, from efforts in the 1980s to marshal support among left-leaning people for the Contras and Afghan Mujahedeen, or in the late 1990s to drum up support for the Kosovo Liberation Army. In doing so, the practitioners of the deception that these guerrilla movements were anti-imperialist used the public relations technique of exploiting a previous association (between guerrilla warfare and anti-imperialism) to suggest that the association is enduring and invariable (and that the Contra, Mujahedeen, and KLA struggles were therefore anti-imperialist.) The reasoning—illogical—follows this form: They must have been anti-imperialist; after all, the tools they used were based on struggles against U.S. imperialism. This anticipates Kurtz’s : “Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S.”

Kurtz, then, seeks to portray collaboration with imperialism as anti-imperialist by drawing on instances where the use of nonviolent warfare and anti-imperialist struggles intersected. Attempts to breathe life into the false idea that nonviolent warriors are necessarily anti-imperialist can be seen in Kurtz’s attempts to frame his debate with me as one between two people who are committed to the same anti-imperialist goals but disagree on the means to achieve them. That we share very different goals is evident in the contrast between this by Kurtz, and this, by me.

I argued in an article on Peter Ackerman, the founder of the ICNC on whose academic advisory board Kurtz sits, that Ackerman does what the CIA used to do while working to make it seem progressive. In Kurtz’s reply, we can see that he, too, is engaged in the same project.

Finally, Kurtz argues that I essentially concede that nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change. If he could point out where I conceded this, essentially or otherwise, I would be grateful. I can’t recall ever being interested enough in the point to have either conceded or challenged it. However, now that Kurtz has drawn my attention to the question, let me offer two observations.

First, I shy away from absolutist statements of the kind that any one method is more effective than all others under all conditions, in all places, and at all times. That nonviolent resistance – or any other method of social change — is always the best method, everywhere, under all circumstances, seems highly unlikely to me.

Second, I can’t imagine how the superiority of nonviolent resistance could ever be empirically proven. There are far too many things going on in any struggle for change to disentangle the effects of one form of struggle from all the others that are likely to accompany it and from the effects of the different responses to the struggle that different governments may make.

For example, the Gandhian struggle against British control of India was not unaccompanied by a violent resistance. Moreover, Britain’s exhaustion and depletion following WWII likely figured prominently in the country’s willingness to loosen some control over its colonial possession.

Likewise, it is impossible to isolate the effects of the US-sponsored, aided- and organized-civil disobedience movement on the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic from the effects of NATO bombing; the US-sponsored and funded KLA insurgency; sanctions; and the differential withholding by NATO of heating oil from areas that supported Milosevic’s Socialist party. Isolating one element of the anti-Milosevic struggle from its many and diverse elements, and then attributing the outcome of the struggle to one element alone, seems to me to be as dishonest as it is methodologically untenable. And yet, this is exactly what the ICNC has done in its paean to nonviolent struggle, Bringing Down a Dictator.

That Kurtz could argue that a method of social change has been “empirically proven” should raise serious questions about his intellectual honesty. Sadly, he seems to be less a social scientist than a kind of salesman for nonviolent resistance who dishonestly exploits his academic credentials to peddle what any intelligent undergraduate would recognize as a conclusion based on methodological nonsense.

To be clear, my view on nonviolent warfare is that it can be effective, but not at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. Some conditions seem likely to increase the likelihood of a campaign of nonviolent warfare succeeding. These include outside support in the form of funding, training, and organization (what the US government, imperialist foundations and ICNC provide); diplomatic and military pressure on the target government; the use of sanctions and economic warfare to destabilize the economy; and the cooperation of the media to undermine the legitimacy of the target government, as well outside support for so-called “independent” media to do the same. The aim is to weaken and disorganize a government to sap its will to rule. Other governments at other times have been weakened and disorganized by crises (economic catastrophe or the devastation of war, for example) that were not methodically engineered by an outside power. Some of these governments have also been brought down by opposition forces, sometimes violently, sometimes non-violently. The point is that recognizing that nonviolent warfare can be effective in some instances does not amount to essentially conceding that nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change.

But this is hardly the main concern. Even if I were to concede the point, as Kurtz erroneously claims I have, it wouldn’t erase the collaboration of Kurtz and other exponents of nonviolent warfare with imperialism. That’s the real strike against the ICNC and its agents.

Written by what's left

January 15, 2011 at 12:05 am

Leftist overthrow advisor Lester Kurtz: “I talked with the CIA”

with 29 comments

By Stephen Gowans

Lester Kurtz is a professor of sociology who sits on the academic advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, an organization that trains activists in the use of mass civil disobedience to take power from foreign governments.

Lester Kurtz, another academic pony in Peter Ackerman’s ICNC stable. Kurtz talked to the CIA because they asked him to.

The ICNC was founded by former Freedom House head, Peter Ackerman, Michael Milken’s right-hand man at the Wall Street investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Ackerman became ridiculously wealthy organizing the KKR leveraged buy-out of RJR Nabisco. [1]

These days Ackerman is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with former US secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, and CEOs, investment bankers and highly placed media people. When he’s not helping formulate foreign policy recommendations at the CFR, he’s lending a hand on the Advisory Council of the United States Institute for Peace, a phoney U.S. government peace outfit headed absurdly by the U.S. secretaries of defense and state.

As you might expect of a wealthy investor who hobnobs with the US foreign policy establishment, Ackerman defines protection of private property rights as an integral part of democracy and believes the United States has a lot of teach the world. [2]

After learning investment banking at the knee of Milken, Ackerman turned his energies to training foreign activists in the use of the nonviolent resistance techniques of Gene Sharp, probably the first person to situate mass civil disobedience in the context of military strategy. [3] This earned Sharp the sobriquet the Clausewitz of nonviolence, after the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. [4]

An interviewer working for a Canadian nonviolent resistance magazine once pointed out to Sharp — with some incredulity — that people say a government cannot fund or sponsor the overthrow of another government.

Sharp replied, “Why not?” adding, “What do they prefer that the U.S. spend money on?” [5]

Gene Sharp, the Clausewitz of nonviolence, who sees no trouble with the U.S. government spending money on overthrowing foreign governments. When Sharp was accused of advising right-wing Venezuelans on how to topple Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the head of the ICNC academic advisory board, Stephen Zunes, sprang to his defense. Sharp is old and sick, Zunes explained. Besides, he has adopted a “transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and (talks) to essentially anyone”. It used to be that leftist peaceniks were against the US government and other rightist forces. Now they advise them.

Nonviolent resistance – also more aptly called nonviolent warfare – is about taking power, not making a point. It’s not pacifism or a principled religious or ethical position based on abhorrence of violence. It’s power politics. Ackerman and other nonviolent warriors believe that mass civil disobedience – the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and nonviolent sabotage backed by sanctions and demonization of target governments – can be more effective in taking political power than military intervention. [6] That makes them instrumental nonviolence advocates. They advocate nonviolence, not because they hate violence, but because they think nonviolence works better than armed revolt or military intervention.

With the help of people like Lester Kurtz, the ICNC trains a modern cadre of mercenaries, who travel the world in the pay of NGOs, Western governments, wealthy individuals and corporate foundations, in order to train local groups in regime change through nonviolent warfare. [7] Ackerman, Kurtz and company, sit at the head of a kind of imperialist International, whose aim is to spread the US system, US influence and ultimately US capital around the world, under the guise of “promoting democracy.” It calls to mind a line from Phil Ochs’ condemnation of US imperialism, “We’re the Cops of The World”. Ochs sang, “The name for our profits is democracy.” Of course, the ICNC isn’t admitting to any of this. ICNC members say they’re just handing out information on nonviolence to anyone who will listen.

Last April, Kurtz posted a comment to my blog, calling my linking of Ackerman and his ICNC to US imperialism a “non sequitur.”

I replied. In my reply I pointed out that Kurtz discloses on his CV that he gave workshops to the CIA and the U.S. government- and corporate- funded think-tank, the RAND Corporation. Nine months later, Kurtz replied, with a bombshell. Sure, he talked with the CIA and RAND, he said, because they asked him to.

Albert Szymanski, also a professor of sociology, would never have received an invitation from the CIA to conduct a workshop on anything, and if he had, we can be pretty sure he would have turned them down. So why Kurtz (an academic advisor to an outfit founded by a wealthy CFR member who celebrates the overthrow of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, an act which cleared the way for a US-backed pro-capitalist government to come to power to sell off state and socially-owned assets to investors like Ackerman) and not Szymanski (a Marxist-Leninist who deplored imperialism)? If ever there was a sign you’re part of the problem, it’s being asked by the CIA for advice. Giving it erases all doubts.

Here’s the exchange. It begins with Kurtz’s comments on my article, “Washington Post: North Korean, Iranian nuclear capability threatens US imperialism”, on April 5, 2010.

It’s no surprise that US foreign policy is somehow linked to the economics of things is not a shock – what is surprising is Stephen Gowans’ effort to link “pro-democracy nonviolence activists,” and Peter Ackerman, with US imperialism! What a non-sequitur! Those activists (with the aid of only educational resources from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict that Ackerman funds) have taken on oppressors of all political stripes, many of them (like Marcos, Pinochet, etc., etc.) part of the US orb. While Washington no doubt has a hit list, it has nothing to do with providing information and resources to people who would organize for their rights regardless of who is thwarting them. The kind of imprecise thinking that links these activities through some leap of logic simply distracts from other aspects of the argument and leaves me puzzled as to the point of the article.

I replied the same day.

I’m assuming the above was written by Lester Kurtz, Professor of Sociology at George Mason University, and a member of the academic advisory board of Peter Ackerman’s organization, the ICNC. In March, 2005, Kurtz ran a workshop on religion and violence for the CIA and RAND.

I wonder whether Kurtz sees the connection between RAND and the CIA on the one hand and US imperialism on the other. Probably not.

While it may come as no surprise to Kurtz that US foreign policy is somehow linked to the economics of things, showing that this is so is much more difficult than showing that Peter Ackerman is linked to US imperialism. The latter is easily demonstrated.

(1) US foreign policy is imperialist,
(2) The Council on Foreign Relations plays a major role in shaping US foreign policy, and
(3) Peter Ackerman is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

We could add other observations (e.g., Ackerman’s previous role as head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, hardly what you would call a non-imperialist organization, and his privileged position atop the economic order of things) but the points above should suffice.

What comes as a surprise to me is that while Kurtz can grasp the nexus between the economics of things and the imperialist nature of US foreign policy, he can’t see the much more obvious connection between Ackerman and US imperialism, but perhaps that is so because to see it, would mean acknowledging his own connection to it.

Nine months later Kurtz responded.

Of course there’s a connection between RAND, the CIA, and US imperialism – that’s why I talked with them when asked to do so. What good does it do to sit in a corner and talk to ourselves? I used to complain to my students that nobody ever asked me about important policy questions – do they ask you? I’d ask. So, when they asked me to speak, I did. I’d not work for them, but will talk with them, with you, with the devil, with anyone who will listen. The whole system is rotten, but won’t be replaced or transformed until people stand up and speak out.

Interestingly, Kurtz used the same defense that the head of the ICNC academic advisory board Stephen Zunes used on behalf of the Clausewitz of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, when it was revealed that Sharp had advised right-wing Venezuelans on how to bring down Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Sharp, explained Zunes, had “taken a ‘transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and (talks) to essentially anyone” [8], apparently just as Kurtz does. If that’s a defense, the world dodged a bullet when Zunes turned down a career in law.

Here’s more of Zunes defending Sharp:

Unfortunately, Sharp – who is now well into his 80s and whose health is failing – appears to show little discernment as to who he meets with and his audience has sometimes included some right-wing Cubans or Venezuelans who have sought him out to see if any of his research would be of relevance in their efforts to organize some kind of popular mobilization against the Castro or Chavez governments. Some of those may have indeed been later found to have engaged in assassination plots. [9]

Since Kurtz isn’t well into his 80s, how do we explain his lack of discernment in who he meets with? Or does age have anything to do with it? Meeting with right-wing Venezuelans, right-wing Cubans [10], followers of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah of Iran [11], and the CIA seems to be standard operating procedure for nonviolent warriors. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer pointed out that “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” It seems that if there’s a nationalist or socialist government to be overthrown, the nonviolent warriors are always willing to step up to the plate. They’ll talk to anyone: right-wing assassins, followers of a former US-backed Iranian dictator, the CIA. Adopting a position that “cuts across political boundaries and conceptions” means that where leftist peaceniks once were against the US government and other rightist forces, not they advise them.

On January 5, I responded to Kurtz’s latest comment.

Good work Les. Maybe after you deliver a few more seminars, the CIA will see the light, and decide that taking down foreign governments that refuse to subordinate themselves to Washington’s dictates isn’t such a good thing after all… Oh, but I forgot, that’s no longer a CIA function, is it? It’s now your job, and that of your ICNC colleagues.

Exactly what is it you’re standing up and speaking out about to the CIA anyway: that organizing nonviolent warfare campaigns against foreign governments is more effective in achieving US foreign policy goals than taking out wedding parties with predator drones?

You are, indeed, making the world a better place, Les. Keep accepting those CIA invitations.

Kurtz and some other ICNC academic advisors seem bewildered that they should be so vigorously criticized for trying to show the powerful that nonviolent overthrow movements are a better alternative to armed intervention. After all, what could be wrong with trying to persuade Washington that there’s a nonviolent way to achieve its foreign policy objectives? What they fail to grasp is that the tools the US government uses to prosecute its foreign policy aren’t the problem. The problem is US foreign policy.

1. Franklin Foer, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.

2. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Interview with Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” October 19, 2006. http://www.international.gc.ca/cip-pic/discussions/democracy-democratie/video/ackerman.aspx?lang=eng .

3. Eli Lake, “Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists,” The New York Sun, March 14, 2006.

4. Peace.Ca, “Gene Sharp: A Biographical Profile.” http://www.peace.ca/genesharp.htm

5. Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101,” Peace Magazine, July-Septmeber, 2003.

6. Peter Ackerman, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002; Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003; Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.)

7. Mark R. Beissinger, “Promoting democracy: Is exporting revolution a constructive strategy?” Dissent, Winter 2006. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=155

8. Stephen Zunes, George Cicariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, “Debate on the Albert Einstein Institution and its Involvement in Venezuela”, venezuelanalysis.com, August 5, 2008. http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3690

9. Ibid. It’s bad enough that Zunes tries to excuse Sharp’s meeting with right-wing Venezuelans as a lack of discernment attributable to age and illness when nonviolent warriors regularly aid right-wing forces, but his descent into bafflegab in the construction of the truly prolix phrase “‘transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions” — meaning I’d give advice to Hitler if he asked — would be comic were it not intended to prettify a reactionary position. Zunes, I think, would give British MP Sir Norman Fry a run for his money as a concocter of tortured explanations to cover up what he doesn’t care to admit.

10. Foer.

11. Ibid.

Written by what's left

January 6, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Reply to Peace Activist Stellan Vinthagen

with 6 comments

By Stephen Gowans

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, founded by the junk-bond king Michael Milken’s former right-hand man Peter Ackerman, is accumulating a stable of academic advisors who in the last week have written a series of articles on nonviolent civil disobedience for the website openDemocracy. openDemocracy is a flashy website ostensibly committed to progressive causes but whose backers are anything but progressive, unless you think corporate philanthropists and strenuously anti-communist billionaire financier George Soros are cutting checks to individuals and groups working toward traditional leftist goals.

One article, People power and the new global ferment, written by ICNC academic advisor Stellan Vinthagen, accuses me and Eva Golinger of spinning conspiracy theories. According to Vinthagen, a Swedish sociology professor,

…a final sign of the growing impact of civil resistance are radical activists, be they left-wing, right-wing, or anarchist, who rage against “the new imperialist” tool of nonviolence (writers such as Stephen Gowans and Eva Golinger). They reduce people power to a conspiracy organized by the almighty USA and (naive or reactionary) parts of local civil society that lend themselves to the overthrow of (progressive) foreign governments. Conspiracies against such governments may exist, but indigenous people power could not grow if it were, ‘made in USA’.

Vinthagen misrepresents my position. While nonviolence, to be sure, is a tool, I do not regard it as inherently “the new imperialist” tool. Indeed, my criticism is not specific to nonviolence itself, but to its high profile promoters, particularly individuals associated with the ICNC, whose affinity with nonviolent civil disobedience appears to begin and end in the assistance it can provide grass roots movements whose goals momentarily align with those of the US state in opposing a foreign government. Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and Peter Ackerman—who have taken an old CIA practice of covertly destabilizing target governments and made it overt and seemingly progressive—appear to be less interested in the technique’s usefulness in bringing about progressive social change and more in its usefulness as a surrogate for military means of achieving US foreign policy goals, and occasionally as a complement to state violence. (For example, while nonviolent civil disobedience is often hailed by the ICNC as a sterling example of what people power can achieve, the account conspicuously overlooks the role played by NATO’s three-month-long bombing campaign, economic warfare and assistance to a KLA insurgency in creating miserable conditions for Serbs, and hence a motivation to oust then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. These measures, all of them violent and undertaken by Western states against a foreign population, established the conditions that allowed civil disobedience to eventually topple the Milosevic government.)

It is a matter of no small moment that Ackerman—the driving force behind the ICNC–is part of the US foreign policy establishment. He is a board member of the premier US foreign policy establishment think-tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, and as independent scholar activist Michael Barker points out, has “less widely advertised service [to the US ruling class] on the advisory board of America Abroad Media, where he is joined by the likes of James Woolsey, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation (the world’s largest defense contractor).”

In their Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described Freedom House, which Ackerman not too long ago headed up, as having interlocks with “the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.” (1988, p. 28.) As for Ackerman’s ICNC, its role in facilitating US regime change efforts is obvious in the following, from a 2005 New Republic article by Franklin Foer: “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” (“Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.)

Nonviolent civil disobedience is a technique, preferable, to be sure, to violence. But it is no more inherently progressive than it is inherently the new imperialist tool. Whether a specific application of the tool is good or bad depends on what it is being used for, and whose interests it serves. Unfortunately, Ackerman’s background and connections—explored in detail in Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive—suggests strongly that the ICNC promotes use of the tool, not to advance democracy in the original sense of the word, but to advance the foreign policy goals of the US state.

Vinthagen and other peace activists are doubtlessly sincere in their passionate embrace of nonviolent direct action, but their passionate commitment—and the alluring resources the ICNC offers to promote it—may have blinded them to the nature of the ICNC principals and their true aims.

Written by what's left

November 23, 2010 at 12:00 am

The Revolution Will Not Be Assisted By The ICNC (The Counter-Revolution Is Another Matter)

with 13 comments

By Stephen Gowans

I confess that when Michael Barker sent me a link to nonviolence advocate Brian Martin’s Gandhi Marg article “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” I wasn’t too keen on reading it. [1] With a pile of unread books threatening to bury me under an avalanche, I thought my time could be better spent on avalanche control. Plus, I was hoping to get around to mowing the tufts of hair that advancing age have brought to my ears.

It was, therefore, with scant enthusiasm that I flipped desultorily through Martin’s article. Undecided as to whether to plunge in, I skipped to the conclusion. If anything there grabbed my attention I would read the article in full. Otherwise, I would toss “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” on my not-worth-the-time pile, along with the stack of Stephen Zunes articles I had accumulated.

The first sentence of Martin’s conclusion read: “Proponents of nonviolence have come under attack for supporting bad causes, in particular US imperialism.”

My attention shifted more firmly to the article, away from a precariously balanced book teetering atop my book pile.

The next sentence brought me fully awake. “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence.”

I was immediately interested. Which claims lack evidence? Which don’t? Which stand up to scrutiny? Which wither under Martin’s analysis?

Laying a brace against the tottering mountain of books beside me, I dove into Martin’s article, anxious to discover how the claims of nonviolence critics fell apart under careful examination.

Hmmm. Nothing on page 1. Oh well, he’s just getting started. Page 5 – Still nothing, but there are 15 pages of text to go. It’s early. Page 10 – A bus rumbles by and shakes the Himalaya of books beside me. A book hurtles to the floor. I move quickly to avoid it. Nothing yet. Page 15 – Still nothing. Did I read the conclusion correctly? I skip ahead to check. Proponents of nonviolence…under attack…supporting US imperialism…lack evidence. No mistake. Page 16. Nothing. Pages 17 and 18. Still nothing. Page 19. Ah, there it is. In the final paragraph before the conclusion. A single sentence: “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed, including by the absence of any proof that nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.”

What? I just cancelled a much needed date with my ear-hair scissors to learn that “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence” because “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed”?

Nonviolence advocate Brian Martin: His Gandhi Marg article should have been tossed on the not-worth-the-time pile.

This is like being told that the secret to getting rich is to accumulate a lot of money. Or that when people lose their jobs, unemployment happens. I should have trusted my instincts and tossed Brian Martin on the not-worth-the-time pile.

Problems with Martin’s Case

Here are the problems, if they’re not already evident.

First, the ICNC (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict), one of the proponents of nonviolence that has come under attack for supporting bad causes, has been criticized for its connections to ruling class organizations and for aiding groups whose aim is to bring down foreign governments whose policies are not conducive to the interests of Western economic elites. Of this there is considerable evidence and documentation. Michael Barker has catalogued a lot of it. Click here.

Rather than dealing with the criticism above and the evidence that supports it, Martin deflects attention. Those who criticize the ICNC for its ruling class connections are deemed champions of the idea that “nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.” This has demagogic potential. No one wants to be called a dupe, and accusing the ICNC’s critics of branding grassroots activists as victims of a swindle serves two purposes: it turns grassroots activists against the critics and takes attention away from the central issue: the ICNC’s ties to the US foreign policy establishment.

The second problem is that Martin fails to show that the critic’s case falters under close examination and lacks evidence. In fact, he doesn’t examine it at all. Instead, he simply asserts that the case lacks substance, footnoting the conclusion with a reference to a personal communication from “Hardy Merriman – of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.” Merriman told Martin that “the burden of proof should be on those making the assertion that recent nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers. They never provide such proof.”

Just to make this clear: Martin’s careful examination of the critics’ case boils down to an assurance from good old Hardy Merriman, of the ICNC, that the ICNC’s critics haven’t got a case. This is like a George W. Bush supporter declaring that few of the claims of Bush’s critics stand up to scrutiny, because Dick Cheney told him so in a personal communication. No wonder Martin buried this in a footnote.

The ICNC's Hardy Merriman. Told Martin that the critics' case against the ICNC is baseless. Like Dick Cheney assuring a Bush supporter that criticisms of Bush fail to stand up to scrutiny and lack evidence.

But that’s just the start of the problems with this dishonest piece of scholarship. ICNC critics have never said that nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers (at least, the ones I know haven’t.) What they’ve said is that the ICNC (and Western powers) are fronts for the US ruling class, of which ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman, is a charter member. You can find out more about the ex-leveraged buyout specialist, former head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and now Council on Foreign Relations board member, here. When Ackerman isn’t teaching foreign activists how to use nonviolent civil disobedience to overthrow Third World governments, he’s running Rockport Capital Inc., a private investment firm. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.

ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman. Runs Rockport Capital Inc., is an ex-leveraged buyout specialist, has headed the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.

Nor do the critics of the ICNC criticize the organization for promoting nonviolence, though Martin would have you believe that nonviolence is the burr under their saddles. The truth is that what bothers the ICNC’s critics is the organization’s integration into the US foreign policy estblishment. It’s not the tactics the ICNC promotes, but the reasons it promotes them, and on whose behalf, that galvanizes the center’s critics. Martin misses this, whether deliberately or not, is unclear.

The Case Against the ICNC

Martin doesn’t name me in his article, and he may never have had me in mind. But all the same, let me summarize my own objections to the ICNC, and its siblings, the AEI (Albert Einstein Institution) and CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies), and more broadly, “democracy” promoting organizations like the NED (National Endowment for Democracy, established to take up the former CIA function of meddling in foreign countries’ elections.)

The ICNC and NED are fronts for Western ruling class interests.

These organizations engage with movements abroad to influence them and use them to achieve Western foreign policy goals.

Nonviolent civil disobedience movements can be effective in bringing down governments that have been demoralized or weakened by war, threats of war, sanctions, economic crisis or outside propaganda (delivered via Radio Liberty, Voice of America, NED-funded ‘independent’ media, the Western mass media, and so on) or some combination of the above. Nonviolent civil disobedience movements, by themselves, without outside intervention to disorganize and weaken the governments they seek to change, are usually ineffective. (I provide an example later on in this article.)

By promoting nonviolent civil disobedience the ICNC and CANVAS:

(A) provide tools for activists abroad to overthrow their governments. These tools become effective when Western powers first disorganize and weaken the foreign governments they have targeted for overthrow;

(B) encourage activists at home to adopt nonviolent civil disobedience, pointing to its successes abroad, but ignoring the role played by war, sanctions, economic crisis and propaganda as softening up interventions that help nonviolent civil disobedience to work. This channels domestic activists into a set of activities that, while they may often be successful when used in conjunction with intervention to weaken target governments, are likely to be far less successful otherwise, and may well be completely ineffective and inappropriate to the circumstances.

The problem with pragmatic nonviolence (the nonviolence based on strategic, not ethical considerations that Gene Sharp, the ICNC’s intellectual godfather champions) is not that it is always ineffective, but that it is not unconditionally more effective than violence, as its promoters claim. It is easy to conceive of circumstances in which nonviolence is the method of choice, but equally easy to conceive of other circumstances in which nonviolence will fail miserably. The position of the ICNC, AEI and Brian Martin is that nonviolence is always more effective than violence, a claim which, to throw Martin’s words back at him, withers under scrutiny and lacks evidence. The complaint against Martin and his fellow pragmatic nonviolence promoters, then, is that what they are promoting is a position that locks domestic activists into a nonviolence that is not always the best tactic for the circumstances at hand.

To strengthen their case, Martin et al point to recent successes abroad, intimating that domestic activists can be equally effective if they use the same techniques. This, however, completely ignores the role Western intervention has played in these countries of weakening governments and providing funding to activists to organize civil disobedience and build media support. No Western government is going to sanction itself, threaten to bomb its own population, distribute anti-government propaganda calling for its overthrow, or pay local activists to agitate for its downfall. Absent these conditions, the chances of civil disobedience working in the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the Western world to achieve anything close to what has been achieved elsewhere, are slim at best. It’s kind of like saying building a roof will keep you safe from the elements, because, look, those people over there built a roof and now they’re warm and dry, ignoring all the preceding work in building a foundation, frame and walls.

Georgia

Indeed, the efficacy of these techniques absent help from rich outside donors can be measured by what happened in Georgia, after the Rose Revolutionaries, using techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience, ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, clearing the way for Washington’s new man, Mikheil Saakashvili, to come to power.

A second nonviolence-based revolution should have happened when Saakashvili turned out to be little better than the man he replaced. Instead, nothing.

“Georgia is a semi-democracy,” explains Lincoln Mitchell, who worked for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. “We have traded one kind of semi-democratic system for another. There is a real need to understand that what happened is another one-party government emerged.” [2]

According to Mitchell, “under Shevardnadze, there was freedom of assembly and the press, and the government was too weak to crack down on dissent. But the state was rife with corruption, and elections were poorly run. Under Saakashvili, the central government is stronger and official corruption has been reduced, but the media have far fewer freedoms and there are fewer civil organizations. Elections still don’t function well.” What’s more, “parliament has been weakened through constitutional changes mandated by Saakashvili, making it difficult for the legislative branch to restrain executive power.” [3]

So why don’t the Rose Revolutionaries dust off their nonviolence skills, and oust Saakashvili, the way they did Shevardnadze?

One reason is that many Rose Revolutionaries have moved on to do Uncle Sam’s work in other countries whose governments Washington has slated for regime change.

“Every few months” explains the Los Angeles Times’ Borzou Daragahi, Nini Gogiberidze, a Rose Revolutionary employed by the nonviolence promoter CANVAS, “is deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” [4] Apparently, with their fires of indignation burning against the autocracies of Victor Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Gogiberidze and her CANVAS colleagues have failed to notice that Saakashvili is also an autocrat.

George Bush with Georgian autocrat Mikheil Saakashvili: Rose Revolution activists are too busy working to overthrow autocrats on Uncle Sam's regime change hit list to notice the autocrat at home.

Another reason is that the Rose Revolutionaries’ rich donors have withdrawn their funding, and diverted it to the whole point of the Rose Revolution – Saakashvili. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported in 2008, “the Bush administration scaled back funding for voluntary civil and social organizations” (i.e., the Rose Revolutionaries) “in order to devote resources to building up the central government.” [5] Saakashvili got more help from Washington to consolidate his position, while the nonviolence movement sputtered to a halt, starved of the funding that once fueled it. Money helps in organizing, and organization is critically important in both strengthening governments and overthrowing them.

Conclusion

As I finished Martin’s article I reflected on its title: Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence. One of the dilemmas Martin failed to address is that of defending the ICNC, an organization that is bound up with US ruling class interests and at the same time promotes nonviolent civil disobedience (mainly in Third World countries), and which is condemned not for its promotion of nonviolent activism but for its integration into the US foreign policy establishment and its assistance to the pursuit of US foreign policy goals. As Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic, “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting [ICNC chief] Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” [5] Nonviolence promoters have found themselves springing to the defense of this dodgy organization (which does what the CIA used to do but tries to make it appear progressive) because they’ve misinterpreted attacks on the ICNC as attacks on nonviolence.

Stephen Zunes. Fronts for the ICNC in leftwing circles.

The real dilemma for independent nonviolence promoters is to figure out how to build a firewall between the Western ruling class interests that lurk behind seemingly neutral organizations like the ICNC, fronted by the soi-disant progressive and anti-imperialist Stephen Zunes, and genuine grassroots movements. The solution is summed up clearly in the epigram: the revolution will not be funded (or selflessly assisted by ultrawealthy members of the Council on Foreign Relations.) Genuine grassroots revolutions and movements will only achieve genuine grassroots goals if they reject engagement with fronts for Western ruling class interests. Otherwise, activists abroad may find themselves helping to bring another Saakashvili to power. Another US client, eager to transform his country into a profit center for US investors, may be congenial to the interests of investment firms, like Rockport Capital Inc., but will hardly be congenial to the interests of the bulk of grassroots activist who clear the way for his ascension to power. As for activists at home, they may find themselves straitjacketed into a mode of achieving social change that is not always well suited to the circumstances at hand, and which succeeds only when backed by the massive intervention of Western states, an intervention that clearly won’t be happening at home. The warning, beware of ultra-rich establishment figures bearing gifts, and even more so their progressive lieutenants, scarcely needs justification.

ADDENDUM

In March 2010 the ICNC revealed on its website who its board of academic advisors is. Among the names was Brian Martin.

1. Brian Martin,” Dilemmas in Promoting Nonviolence,” Gandhi Marg, October-December, 2009.
2. Glenn Kessler, “Georgian Democracy A Complex Evolution,” The Washington Post, August 24, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/23/AR2008082301817_pf.html
3. Ibid.
4. Borzou Daragahi, “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution”, The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
5. Kessler
6. Foer, Franklin, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.

Written by what's left

March 12, 2010 at 10:04 pm

The Problem with Nonviolent Regime Change

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Written by what's left

September 17, 2009 at 10:33 pm

A wrecking ball of imperialism

with 7 comments

By Stephen Gowans

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at Australia’s University of Wollongong, has written a reply to my article Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive , and then a reply to my reply. Martin is the author of a number of books and articles on nonviolence, including Nonviolence against Capitalism, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, and “Nonviolent strategy against capitalism” (in Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 42-46.)

In the latest exchange, I try to show that the disagreement between Martin and me is rooted, I believe, in a conflict between Marxist and anarchist perspectives on the state, and the question of whether the state is inherently good or bad.

I argue that because anarchists are opposed to domination, and because the state is an instrument of domination, anarchists often line up alongside imperialist forces seeking the overthrow of foreign states. Because the regime change efforts of imperialist forces are aimed exclusively at states operating outside the North Atlantic imperialist orbit, the effect is for anarchists who participate in campaigns to challenge these states to act as one of Western imperialism’s wrecking balls. While the anarchist aim is to challenge state authority, the aim of the imperialist forces that fund and provide training for the nonviolent resistance campaigns anarchists are often involved in, is to transfer control of the state from often popular and anti-colonial forces to comprador forces that are willing to facilitate the despoliation of their countries by North Atlantic banks, corporations and investors. Anarchist challenges to North Atlantic states, without the generous funding Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are prepared to allocate to challenges to states operating outside the United States’ informal empire, are modest and ineffectual by comparison.

The State

I think Martin would agree that the state is an instrument of domination, which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a defined geographical territory, exercised by the police and military. In the Marxist view, the state enforces the interests of one class over another, which is to say, it is an instrument whereby one class dominates and oppresses another. Slave owner states oppress slaves, landowner states oppress serfs, capitalist states oppress workers, and working class states oppress capitalists to limit or prevent capitalist exploitation. To Marxists, the question of whether the state is good or bad depends on who controls it, and who’s asking the question. To people conscious of their membership in the working class, the capitalist state is bad, not because it’s repressive, but because it’s repressive against their interests. Similarly, to a capitalist, the working class state is bad, not because it relies on the use or threat of violence to enforce a system of laws that privilege the working class, but because the system of laws backed by violence is against the interests of capital.

Anarchists, on the other hand, regard the state as inherently bad because it is based on domination enforceable through violence. To Martin, nonviolence is “especially useful for those who want to challenge domination” and it “involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force.” In other words, nonviolent resistance (NVR) is useful for doing what anarchists do: challenge the state.

But what if the state is under the control of a previously oppressed class or nation and its repressive function is used to prevent its former oppressor’s return to power? The leaders of Zimbabwe’s national liberation, for example, have used the state, and its repressive powers, to advance the interests of indigenous people at the expense of a former colonial oppressor, European settlers, and would-be neo-colonialists. The Bolsheviks used state power to enforce a wide array of measures favourable to the working class at the expense of capitalists and landowners. Is the use of state power to crack down on forces which seek to reduce Zimbabwe to neo-colonial servitude inherently bad? And were the Bolsheviks wrong to use state power to repress class enemies, as a condition of advancing the interests of the working class?

To anarchists the answer is yes. The Zimbabwe state is repressive. It uses violence to enforce the interests of indigenous Africans over those of European settlers and their descendants. The Bolshevik state was also repressive. It used violence to repress capitalists, estate-owners, rich peasants, saboteurs, and political enemies. Whether working class or capitalist, anti-colonial or colonial, the state is repressive; it is an instrument of domination. For these reasons anarchists oppose it.

A movement which challenges the state in Zimbabwe, or the state in countries in which working class interests are dominant, earns the support of anarchists. Indeed, because anarchists are against any state, whether feudal, capitalist, working class or anti-colonial, they often find themselves lining up with capitalist and neo-colonial forces against working class-oriented and anti-colonial states. And because North Atlantic governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are eager to bankroll challenges to working class-oriented and anti-colonial states, but not to North Atlantic states and their satellites, anarchists who participate in these campaigns act as a wrecking ball of imperialism; their function is to tear down independent states so that control can be transferred to forces acceptable to Western banks, corporations and investors. At the same time, anarchist nonviolent resistance aimed at Western capitalist states – which tends to be low-level and largely non-disruptive, owing to the absent or meagre funding received from governments and philanthropic foundations – poses no serious threat.

Interestingly, Martin took exception to what he believed was my description of NVR as being guided by the goal of seizing power. This wasn’t my description, but that of Peter Ackerman, one of the principal proponents of NVR. Anarchists don’t seek power (the ability to dominate); they only seek to undermine it. What Martin failed to recognize was that Peter Ackerman, while a proponent of nonviolence, is not an anarchist but a capitalist, and a very wealthy one, whose avocation is to assist in the transfer of state power abroad from forces not yoked to U.S. financial and export interests, to pro-capitalist forces beholden to the US ruling class. Ackerman defines NVR as the use of strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, including nonviolent sabotage, to make a country ungovernable in order to seize power. And yet while Ackerman’s NVR aims are clearly at odds with those of Martin, Martin talks favourably of Ackerman, and Ackerman’s docent, Gene Sharp.

Nonviolence

Whether nonviolence is a defining feature of anarchism is a matter of dispute among anarchists. Martin, I suspect, would say it is. Peter Gelderloos, an anarchist whose book, How Nonviolence Protects the State, rejects exclusive nonviolence as an effective strategy for anarchists, would say it isn’t.

I agree with Gelderloos that proponents of nonviolence have claimed success in excess of what the data support. The modus operandi of NVR advocates is to exaggerate the achievements of campaigns which have featured the use of nonviolent tactics (India’s liberation from British colonial rule; the US civil rights movement; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the anti-nuclear weapons movement) and then to attribute the success of these campaigns to nonviolent tactics alone.

For example, in his reply to me, Martin credits the movements against nuclear weapons — “which used NVR as well as conventional political methods” — with saving the world from nuclear catastrophe. But how do we know that demonstrations and civil disobedience made any difference? The fact that some people used nonviolent tactics in an effort to deter superpower nuclear proliferation hardly means that nonviolence worked. If it did, I could say the crowing of the rooster causes the sun to rise, because the rooster crowed and the sun soon rose.

A more compelling case can be made that the end of the arms race came about because the United States no longer needed to expand its nuclear arsenal. It had embarked on an arms build-up to force the Soviets into bankruptcy. With the goal of toppling its ideological competitor achieved, there was no longer a need to pile weapon upon weapon. And after acquiring the capability to obliterate the world many times over, there was little point in acquiring more nuclear weapons. There comes a point where one more nuke makes no difference.

Moreover, were the decision to end the arms race attributable to nonviolent tactics, we could still say very little was achieved. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Israel still have nuclear arms, and evince not the slightest interest in giving them up. India, Pakistan and north Korea have acquired their own nuclear arsenals (or at least, capabilities.) The United States continues to threaten non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons, thereby encouraging non-nuclear states to develop their own nuclear arms to deter U.S. aggression. What success was achieved was minor indeed.

Ackerman uses the same approach, attributing the success of campaigns that involved nonviolent tactics in some way to nonviolence alone, as if massive surrounding violence played no role. Believe his version of history, and the violence of a Western-sponsored armed insurgency in Kosovo, sanctions, a 78-day NATO terror bombing campaign, unceasing Western hostility, and a political fifth column, had nothing whatever to do with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia in 2000. It was all due to anarchist activists practicing nonviolent resistance.

In the same manner, proponents of NVR attribute India’s political independence from Britain to Gandhian nonviolence. In doing so, they ignore the armed struggle led by Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s campaign of bombings and assassinations, and the effects of the massive violence of two world wars and the armed resistance to British rule in Palestine in weakening Britain and sapping it of the manpower and resources it needed to hold onto its colonies. What’s more, the success was limited. Britain exchanged direct rule for indirect rule. It authored India’s constitution, handpicked its successors, and continued to dominate India’s economy. India’s independence was largely symbolic.

Relatedly, Martin disagrees with my point that NVR is a means to an end, and is therefore neither inherently good nor bad, but is good or bad depending on what it’s used for. Nuclear weapons, he rejoins, are inherently bad, because they are indiscriminate, and because they are a means of domination. The corollary, it seems, is that NVR is inherently good, because it challenges the state, an instrument of domination, and does so without recourse to violence, violence also being a means of domination. This follows consistently from the anarchist abhorrence of domination.

On the other hand, one could argue that Martin has to claim that NVR is good independent of its consequence, because the consequences of the Ackerman-Sharp-Helvey deployments that have been associated with regime change successes have been so negative from the point of view of the working class, that to do otherwise would leave his pro-NVR case in a shambles. NVR looks good only if its recent outcomes are ignored and the role of violence in the progressive outcomes it claims as its own are passed over. In other words, NVR’s positive reputation depends on ignoring the reality that NVR color revolutions have cleared the way for the ascension to power of Washington-aligned neo-liberal regimes that have privileged North Atlantic investors at the expense of domestic workers. At the same time the role of violence in the progressive developments (India’s liberation from British colonial rule, the end of the Vietnam War, and so on) that NVR advocates claim as their own must be ignored. Or you can simply say – as Martin and some peace advocates do – that the outcomes are immaterial; what matters is the process itself. This is sheer sophistry. A process cannot be evaluated independent of its outcomes. If so, a process that invariably produced bad outcomes, would be considered good.

A Marxist would say that domination isn’t always bad. It depends on who’s dominating who, and why. The domination of the formerly exploiting few by the formerly exploited many is not bad, but good, progressive and necessary. Marxists don’t want to dominate for the sake of domination, but if dominating a minority of exploiters and the use of violence are necessary to prevent the minority’s return to power, and to prevent the resumption of mass exploitation, then domination and violence are acceptable. Likewise, if a nuclear weapons capability allows north Korea to deter the United States from using military (including nuclear) aggression to dominate the Korean peninsula and integrate north Korea into Washington’s informal empire, can nuclear weapons be said to be inherently bad and necessarily bound up with the enforcement of domination? On the contrary, it would seem that north Korea’s nuclear capability challenges the domination of the most violent of all states, that of the United States.

Conclusion

At root, the disagreement between Martin and me seems to boil down to this: is domination and the use of violence always bad, or are domination and violence bad depending on who uses them, why they’re used, and what the outcomes are? These are normative questions.

An empirical question concerns whether the commitment of anarchists to challenge the state is useful to imperialist forces. Through their control of philanthropic foundations and such organizations as the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, involved in the training of (often anarchist) activists in techniques of destabilization, and through their control of the media, which shape public understanding of states that operate outside the North Atlantic imperial orbit as being based on unjustified authority, imperialist forces galvanize anarchists into action as one of their wrecking balls — challenging working class-oriented, anti-colonial, and North Atlantic-independent states. These challenges never develop to the point where the state collapses, as anarchists hope, but to the point where state control is transferred to comprador forces, as the imperialist sponsors of NVR campaigns intend. Despite their aim of challenging the state, NVR activists act in ways that help enhance the power of North Atlantic states to dominate and exploit the global south and Eastern Europe. Anarchist nonviolent strategy hasn’t threatened capitalism or challenged the domination of North Atlantic states. On the contrary, its record is one of service to North Atlantic imperialist forces in integrating hold-out countries into Washington’s informal empire, through the participation of NVR activists in campaigns to smash independent states.

Written by what's left

September 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm

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